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Trump's Threat to Australia-US Cyber Cooperation

08 Jul 2017
By Matthew Holding
Image: U.S. Department of Defense

Australia and the United States continue to strengthen their cybersecurity relationship through initiatives such as the recent Australia-US Cyber Dialogue. However, the Trump administration’s cyber policy gaps and the US president’s strained relationship with his intelligence community could prove harmful to these bilateral efforts.

As an extension of their strong historical alliance based on mutual strategic interests, Australia and the United States have only relatively recently engaged with one another on cyber operations. The US and Australia first established their cybersecurity relationship in response to the growing threat of terrorism moving into cyberspace during the post-9/11 era. Since then, Australia-US cyber cooperation has been largely defined by joint initiatives such as intelligence-gathering cooperation, information-sharing programs, cyberthreat-response operations and coordinated counterespionage efforts.

Both the ANZUS and Five Eyes alliances have been expanded to include a more robust cyber relationship between Australia and the US. The ongoing joint intelligence-gathering and surveillance programs at the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap station near Alice Springs are an example of this new robust cyber relationship.

A cornerstone of recent bilateral efforts towards cyber engagement is the Australia-US Cyber Dialogue, announced in 2016. The dialogue is an annual commitment by both states to engage with one another through digital diplomacy to address the most pressing challenges on the cyber landscape and look to bring about cooperative resolutions. The inaugural dialogue took place in September 2016, after which both states reavowed their commitment to strong cyber cooperation.

The key areas of focus included efforts to:

  • expand on their coordinated policies of engaging strategically on cybersecurity within the Asia-Pacific;
  • promote the norms of an open and free internet; and
  • jointly fight cybercrime in and enhance relations with the private sector to advance a secure digital economy in the region.

It is fair to say that the election victory of Donald Trump came as a shock to both governments as they looked to strengthen future ties on cyber cooperation. Thus far, the Trump administration has displayed gaps and complacency on cybersecurity, which could be worrisome for bilateral cyber cooperation from Australia’s perspective. Following his inauguration, Trump was unhurried in prioritising cybersecurity as a critical national security issue. Four months after taking office, the administration finally released a long-awaited executive order on cybersecurity in May.

The executive order was largely given a pass by experts as a step in the right direction and is widely acknowledged as building on the existing cyber policies and initiatives of the Obama administration. A major focus of the executive order is a review of the cyber strategies and infrastructure of government agencies and IT networks. However, at this stage dozens of leading federal cyber positions remain unfilled. This indicates an unpreparedness to face the challenges of the cyber threat landscape, which is an increasingly dominant security issue for governments worldwide.

Donald Trump’s failure in the executive order to recognise the growing threat of cyber-enabled operations intended to spread disinformation and influence elections illustrates his inability to prioritise the most pressing cyber threats. The executive order made no mention of possible Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election despite the fact that, if true, it would be one of the most severe breaches of national security in US history.

Australia-US cyber cooperation and Australian security interests are at risk of being undermined by the Trump administration’s unpreparedness to meet the current challenges of cybersecurity. Trump’s fractured relationship with his intelligence community, the Russia cloud which hangs over his presidency and his reputation for leaking sensitive and classified information could prove harmful to Australia’s security interests. Information sharing is a key component of Australian cyber cooperation with the US, as facilitated by the Australia-US Cyber Dialogue as well as the ANZUS and Five Eyes treaties. It is therefore essential for Australia’s national security interests that it can trust its allies with its most sensitive information.

With Australia now at risk  of state-sponsored cyber espionage, there is ample concern that the Trump administration’s tendency for leaks and mishandling of sensitive information could put Australia’s national security interests at risk as foreign interests look to test US resolve under Trump. In the event of the Trump administration mishandling Australia’s sensitive and classified information obtained through cyber-cooperation programs, it could leave Australia extremely vulnerable.

Since national cybersecurity infrastructures are so intrinsically connected to a state’s intelligence community, it is imperative for executive powers to maintain healthy relationships with its intelligence community. Trump’s strained relationship with his own intelligence community represents a schism between the White House and the institutions responsible for maintaining US cybersecurity. This may force Australia to navigate cyber cooperation with both the Trump administration and partners within the US intelligence community as separate, disconnected entities without a unified message on the cyber threat landscape.

Given that the Trump administration and the US intelligence community have had differing positions on Russia’s interference in the US election, there is a clear gap in consistent messaging between the two institutions. Trump’s unresponsiveness to the US intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election suggests a presidency that is unwilling to work with the institutions most responsible for maintaining and protecting cybersecurity within the US. Ultimately, this could prove harmful for the cyber maturity of the US as well as those regional allies who engage with the US on information-sharing and intelligence-gathering operations.

Matthew Holding has recently completed a masters of international relations at Flinders University and is the Adelaide Projects Officer with Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.